Watching the Minnesota Wild so far this season is to witness the importance of team identity in the NHL. They play the same way all the time. While talent is necessary to succeed, under the regime of GM Doug Risebrough and head coach Jacques Lemaire, the Wild consistenly employ a style executed by players who are well-suited to it.
It isn't only about size, speed, offensive bent or defensive discipline. The Wild are an example of having a model, building it, and then adhering to it on a nightly basis. They have balance and a blend of talent and skills that meld under Lemaire's tutelage. They have stars such as Marian Gaborik and Pavol Demitra, but they also get productive minutes out of the likes of Steven Vieulleux and Matt Foy. They employ the skills of the smallish, fleet-footed, open-ice playmaker Pierre-Marc Bouchard as effectively as they do the slower, net presence game of Mark Parrish.
Sure, the Wild centermen skate backwards between the bluelines more than most defensemen in the Southeast Division do, but that is part of Lemaire's defensive doctrine and it only applies to positioning without the puck. With it, the forwards push aggressively on the attack and the defensemen get the puck to them quickly in transition out of their zone. The Wild regularly take over 30 shots per game -- many of them coming from the point where the defense is vital in supporting the attack and bombing from the blueline.
I bring up the Wild because they entered week four of the season undefeated in regulation and are often labeled as a dull, defensive-minded team of drones. Certainly they protect the front of their net with a pack mentality, but that is simply the base from which all other activity springs. And "springs" is the key modifier, as the Wild skate relentlessly night in and night out to close gaps defensively and create open ice on the attack. That makes them a tough opponent every time out -- maybe the highest compliment you can pay a team in the game of hockey.
Over the course of a long season, a team's inherent identity is what carries it through. Committing to a certain style and running out a roster that matches that vision builds consensus and produces consistency. That's the key to being in the playoff mix year after year. Say "New Jersey Devils" and you know what to expect. Same with the Ottawa Senators, Buffalo Sabres, Detroit Red Wings and Dallas Stars. All have an organizational philosophy that leads to a definitive direction on the ice. The particular style of play endures despite coaching changes and the plugging-in of a few new pieces each year.
What about teams that are rebuilding? Hopefully, for the fans' sake, it really means that their teams are establishing or reestablishing an overall identity. The Washington Capitals are undergoing that process. They established a team-first philosophy founded on building from within, and as their skill level continues to improve, so should the results. The Philadelphia Flyers -- always one of the NHL's most successful and identifiable teams -- fall into the re-establishing category, having stunningly revamped their roster under new GM Paul Holmgren. He quickly rebuilt around tried and true Philly tenets of size and sandpaper. Holmgren also addressed specific needs, such as goaltending, a top-line center and leadership, but the look of the team is once again easily associated with Flyers' hockey, and the results show it.
Tracking the Wild this week as they try to extend their 7-0-1 start with a tough stretch that has them going back to back in the province of Alberta. Catch them on the road in Calgary (Wednesday) and Edmonton (Thursday) followed by their return match in Colorado on Sunday. The Wild edged the Avs, 3-2, this past Sunday in a great Northwest match-up.
The Flyers likewise put their 6-1 record on the line this week with Florida stops against the Panthers and Lightning before traveling to Boston to take on the Bruins, who are off to an impressive 5-2 start themselves. That the two teams finished outside the playoff mix a season ago and are off to strong starts makes this an intriguing tilt. It might not evoke the Broadstreet Bullies -- Big Bad Bruins rivalry of the 1970's, but both teams appear headed towards credibility.